An English-language resource for people interested in Jakob Wassermann.

As a first point of reference, the excellent German website has a wealth of information. It is well worth a visit, even if your German is as poor as mine.

Details about Wassermann's life and work are hard to obtain in English: I hope this helps, in part, to correct that.

Comments, suggestions, and corrections are more than welcome. Contact.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Jakob Wassermann, Columbus, Don Quixote of the Seas

Christoph Columbus: Der Don Quichote Des Ozeans was first published in Germany in 1929. The English edition appeared the following year, translated by Eric Sutton.

Wassermann’s subtitle for the book – ‘Don Quixote of the Seas’ – explains, in part, his choice of subject: Columbus, for him, was as much a dreamer as an explorer, the New World he discovered both a real and an imaginary place. Artists and adventurers have a basic affinity, Wassermann suggests: both venture into the unknown, both strive thereby to test themselves. The desire to gain materially – however strongly it may assert itself at other times – remains, at crucial moments and fundamentally, subservient to the urge to discover. Columbus was driven primarily by an imaginative vision, a monomania that earned him few friends and many enemies. This vision, which enabled him to achieve his goal, was at the same time a form of blindness: he looked on helplessly – perhaps even with indifference - as his New World was ravaged.

The picture Wassermann presents of Columbus is, largely, an unflattering one, yet it is in his subject’s failings that he finds grounds for sympathy. Columbus, for him, is a tragi-comic figure, part sinister, part ridiculous, part heroic. He may even have been the inspiration for Cervantes’ fictional hero, Wassermann contends: ‘an abiding prototype of humanity, of human folly, delusion, and greatness!’

In the first chapter – ‘Intimations of the Unknown’ – Wassermann outlines the difficulties facing any would-be biographer of Columbus. The opening paragraph is worth quoting in its entirety as it gives a flavour of what is to follow:

‘The life and fortunes of Christopher Columbus are highly significant of the fact that even a man destined to great deeds can only be explained by reference to his age and his environment. Our imagination is far too prone to endow an immortal figure with attributes deduced from the results of his achievement and in no way connected with his earthly existence and personality. Fame is a highly mysterious process of crystallisation, in the course of which much dross is purged away. For that reason, contemporaries misinterpret such a phenomenon, or even fail to notice it at all; while posterity, by its knowledge of the ultimate results, now embedded in the course of history, can no longer form a fresh and vivid impression of these mighty figures. Thus all our judgements on historical epochs as well as on historic personages are like much-worn coins, whose value is only investigated for some special reason. Every tradition survives through the mass of errors that are bound up with it: it could not, indeed, be otherwise, since error is a creative element; it creates the hero and his legend, and invests him with a tradition that can never die. Who could bear the truth, assuming that the truth exists? The truth would mean the destruction of every enthusiasm, every illusion, and every ideal that defeats reality. Such truth has little to do with research into documents and the ordinary practice of history – it is hidden like veins of gold in raw and rough material, and to dig it out and hammer it into significance calls for much toil, much devotion, and a certain courage; for the human soul, in which alone it is found, is a dark labyrinth peopled by terrifying ghosts.’

Finding the man behind the myth – the ‘earthly existence’ hidden by the legend - becomes a voyage of discovery in its own right. Columbus is an unknown continent – to find him we must leave behind the enthusiasms and illusions fostered by tradition. The hidden ‘veins of gold’ will not be uncovered by a strictly positivist view of history (‘research into documents’), but only by a willingness to explore the ‘dark labyrinth’ of the human soul. In other words, it takes a fellow inventor of fictions to understand someone like Columbus: he must be imagined in his reality.

While this might suggest a lack of rigour on Wassermann’s part (it implies a reluctance to engage in thorough research), he nevertheless assures us that Columbus’ life and achievements are more than a passing interest:

‘Over a period of twenty years, with certain intervals, I have been engaged on the study of this history: and every time I took it up again I had to ask myself: Is this authentic? Is not this merely legend? Are not such and such events apocryphal, and these others no more than probable?’

In the absence of footnotes or a bibliography it is difficult to gauge the extent of Wassermann’s research. Secondary literature, at the time he was writing, was a fraction of what it is today. Washington Irving’s A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828) – itself a work of ‘romantic history’ in which extensive documentary research (Irving was given access to archives recently published by the Spanish government) is combined with a healthy (or unhealthy) amount of invention - was perhaps the best-known work on the subject. It seems safe to assume that Wassermann had read it, or was at least familiar with parts of it: the book was widely available in Europe. It also seems safe to assume, therefore, that his book was in some ways a response to Irving’s history: a condensation aimed at isolating the ‘essence’ of the man.

We must turn to the text itself – as Wassermann no doubt intends – to test the authenticity of his conclusions. If his account seems plausible then we might concede that his Columbus is close to the actual historical figure.

We should bear in mind, Wassermann reminds us, that reliable information about various aspects of Columbus’ life is sometimes wholly absent. An element of conjecture is inevitable:

‘A certain mystery – almost suspicion – hovers around the figure of Columbus from the very beginning. Everything is disputed – his character, his achievement, his development, the events of his life, and his origin.’

What we do know is that ‘[h]e rose from nothing, a vagabond Italian adventurer, to become Grand Admiral of Spain, and Viceroy of a mighty Empire; he paid for seven years of glory and of power by sudden ruin and such humiliation as few men have known: and, after a feeble afterglow of fame, he died a lonely death, almost forgotten.’

This element of tragedy is what interests Wassermann most. How did Columbus, after years of trying to gain support for his adventures, after his eventual success in winning the favour of Isabella, after his discovery of a new continent – a discovery that effected ‘a revolution in the imagination’ of his contemporaries - then fall into ruin and humiliation?

Wassermann’s answer: The same vision and single-mindedness that led to his success led to his downfall:

‘Certain it is that from the very beginning his purpose was bent upon one object and one only, and with something like maniacal energy he made himself master of anything likely to serve that end.’

Once this end was attained, Columbus, effectively, lost his way. He returned to the New World three more times, and would have kept on returning – almost compulsively – had he not fallen out of favour. His maniacal energy was then diverted into more ignoble ambitions: trying to re-establish his status at Court, demanding the financial restitution he believed was his due. ‘One of the most tormented figures that history has ever known,’ it was paradoxically his success that proved his undoing. He found what he was looking for, what he had dreamed about most of his life, only to realise the reality was incommensurable with his vision:

‘Why did he go on? What was the cause of his profound unrest? What was it that drove him again and again beyond the sea? Was it the fact that it was his world, his very own, a world that he had found? Or was he one of those so tragically deceived by destiny who do not recognise their object when they grasp it in their hands? We may not credit him with more perception than the age admitted, and what was instinct in him ceased to be effective as soon as he personally was concerned. He was a figure without mercy: he knew nothing of inward peace: the mighty deed he had accomplished marked him, as a murderer is marked by his guilt. Blindly he sailed the seas and trod inviolate lands, ever thinking of something other than what the hour demanded, helpless before a present necessity, knowing no human face, master of no human heart, buried in his own dark self, a joyless exile.’

Columbus’ blindness – towards others and towards himself – leaves him an exile from the world. Like Don Quixote, he sees only what he wants to see. While, up to a point, this delusion can be sustained, eventually reality defeats him. Having discovered a New World, he cannot understand why greater rewards are not forthcoming. If he hungers after financial recompense and royal approval it is because he does not know what he truly wants. His unrest remains. Between what he can imagine and what the world can offer him is an ocean he cannot cross. This distance – so Wassermann hints - is something the creative artist understands better than most.

The strength of Wassermann’s argument is that it allows us to understand Columbus without excusing him the worst of his actions or condemning him outright. The weakness is that the failing we are asked to acknowledge – his overriding imaginative vision – is not enough to make him a sympathetic figure. It may explain certain aspects of his personality and his behaviour, but it does not make him likeable. Ultimately, Wassermann struggles to convince us of Columbus’ heroic stature. Columbus may indeed have been the inspiration for Don Quixote, but it is Don Quixote who emerges as the real hero.

The final sentence in the book – ‘His fame is a collection of fragments: put them together carefully, and suddenly a spirit soars upward who looks at us with friendly eyes’ – strikes something of a false note. The spirit that emerges from these pages is one who rarely soars and whose eyes are far from friendly.

From Jakob Wassermann, Columbus, Don Quixote of the Seas, (Little, Brown, and Company, 1930, trans., Eric Sutton)

287 pages


‘Religious zeal was one motive; the commercial spirit was another.’

‘In this connection the question arises how far men of past ages are capable of grasping reality. This capacity was quite different in the fifteenth century from what it is now. There is now a fidelity to fact that was wanting in times of immaturity; the idea of truth was then as ill-defined as the obligation to truth was unrecognised. Between the object and the image of it there was still too much empty space which fancy filled with preconceived ideas, with the imaginings of fear, desire, and dream; it diminishes but gradually with increasing knowledge and co-ordinated experience.’

‘In that head chaos reigned, - a murk and confusion of the mind that no longer recognises any scale of thoughts and values, and, had it not been so, the tremendous deed could never have been accomplished. Knowledge begets cowardice; the will can only drive steadily onward in a half light.’

‘He never knew who he was; he only knew who he wanted to be.’

‘There is no need to vindicate Columbus’ honour, palliate his faults, or paint him in glowing colours. We are not to set up a statue on a pedestal but to portray a man, whose peculiar greatness, darkened though it be by shadows, may first be discerned behind the traditional story.’

‘It must not be forgotten that he was a humble hanger-on of the Court and perhaps not even that – a man who wandered about with petitions in his pockets, a haunter of antechambers, a man of many schemes. Such persons are instinctively mistrusted and are continually in danger of paying for their failings as though they had been crimes: and, in addition to this, few people can be found to take them seriously.’

‘A man, it seemed, of uncommonly narrow mind, but at the same time predestined to enlarge the intellectual confines of his time in a manner beyond all expectation, and to revolutionise its world of ideas. He was a pious Catholic and, consequently, replete with pagan superstition regarding all natural laws and occurrences. His subjection to his Idea was almost hysterical and, indeed, nearly reached a point at which his individuality was submerged: yet he bowed to every force from without, listened to every whisper, and fell a victim to every fraud. Practical, astute, and competent in the composition of his plans, in their execution he showed himself amateurish, short-sighted and capricious. He was as morose as a monk, crafty as a peasant, without a glimmer of humour – a character unrelieved by a single ray of cheerfulness. A man of sighs and lamentations, misery and gloom. But for all that, his capacity for suffering and his patience in the bearing of it were prodigious and are strangely touching, like stories from the life of a saint. He learnt almost nothing, and knew everything that might serve his ends. He was sickly, and bore the most incredible hardships with iron endurance. He sprang from the lowest level of society, and had the manners of a grandee and the epistolary style of a Machiavelli. He knew no enjoyment of life, a home meant nothing to him, his wants were as few as those of a dervish, yet he died of worry because he could not get the forty thousand pesos owed him by the Colonial Administration.’

‘His most remarkable trait, and the one most suggesting Don Quixote, is his pride, even arrogance, in his destiny – undeniably a force, but a very isolating force, the most fatal effect of which is to make its possessor misunderstood and to set him apart from life. Who could love a Don Quixote, except as a figure of romance; who could understand him except three hundred years after his death? I could not have passed a day with him; I should have found his observations intolerable, and everything he did repugnant. And yet, what an abiding prototype of humanity, of human folly, delusion, and greatness! Here, his pride in his destiny or what he thought to be his destiny, is based ultimately on a profound redisposition of stern Spanish Catholic dogmatism, through which the character, as the essence of the national entity, appears greatly sublimated and softened, and rich in cross lights; it stands like a monument somewhere between the figures of the Cid and the sinister Torquemada.’

‘As a faithful Catholic, any freedom of the mind or judgement was forbidden: he could not have claimed it and been proud of it. His achievement did not seem to him something unimportant and fortuitous: it was in his eyes so tremendous, so inexpressibly great, that it could only be achieved by the direct assistance of God.’

‘One may premise an utter insensitiveness, not merely of the kind common to all men of his time against non-Christians, naked heathen, and savages in the darkness outside the faith; it was more: it was the blindness and deafness of a man, obsessed as he was by his idea, to every phenomenon on earth, unless he needed it to make that idea more fruitful and more effective. For this reason, it is not correct to speak of Columbus’ avarice, as is often done: his insatiable lust for gold has other roots than common greed. Don Quixote is not avaricious when he weaves his fancies about the treasures of the Emperor of Trebizond: he looks on them as tribute owed to his destiny, he needs them to establish his position.’

‘Columbus’ attitude to the Indios was, from the very outset, cowardly, treacherous, and capricious. On the one hand he cannot sufficiently praise their simplicity and honesty, and on the other he racks his brains over the best way to make the most profit out of them, for he regards them as his own property – primarily as his own, and after that the property of the Spanish Crown.’

‘To “understand” was not an ambition or a characteristic of the time. It did not interest the men of that age. They neither could nor would “understand” the individual natives as fellow creatures, nor would they understand another order of nature, another system of law, or another world. To say that all that interested them was colonisation, conquest, and robbery would be too facile a conclusion: it was in truth a bursting of the narrow bonds of the ego, and it was of little or no consequence whether another ego was destroyed in the process. It was a primitive movement of expansion, affecting kingdoms as well as individuals, without regard to love, humanity, or justice.’

‘No contemporary historiographer or chronicler has been at pains to write down an honest and unvarnished account of the unholy beginning of the colonisation of America; all have slid over them with a few meaningless phrases, as though one of the certainly regrettable but unavoidable inconveniences of discovering new territory was the necessity of abolishing the property rights of the inhabitants, enslaving the men and youths, violating the women, dishonouring the girls, and cutting down in cold blood any one who made the slightest resistance.’

‘No other religion, no other system, treated foreign faiths and forms with such contempt, with so stony an intolerance, as Spanish-Catholic Christianity.’

‘It needs a certain courage and a certain humility to recognise the past of the human race for what it really has been: an unbroken chain of injustice, fraud, theft, outrage, and murder.’

‘At the time of its discovery the island of Espanola had a population of roughly three and a half millions. Ten years later there were only thirty-four thousand left, - scarcely one-hundredth part. The carnage began and proceeded under the seeing-unseeing eyes of Columbus, and whether he felt any grief over this holocaust, or whether, in his dark fatalism and stony isolation of soul, he regarded the process as an inexorable law, is not to be discovered in any chronicle. The truth must be sought, if anywhere, in the man’s own heart.’

‘We cannot now change America into Columbia; it remains America, and there is a certain dark humour about the fact, quite in accordance with the spirit and career of its discoverer, that as a result of a misunderstanding and the mean intrigues of petty people, the continent sails, as it were, under a false flag.’

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Jakob Wassermann, H.M. Stanley, Explorer

Bula Matari was first published in Germany in 1932. The English edition – re-titled H.M. Stanley, Explorer – appeared the same year, translated by Eden and Cedar Paul.

Wassermann prefaces the book with a brief introductory chapter explaining his choice of subject:

‘A good while ago, some of my friends asked me what I was working at. When I told them that I wanted to write a life of Henry Morton Stanley and had, with this end in view, been studying the subject for several years, they were very much surprised. What, they enquired, could interest me in a man whose doings had been of little moment in his lifetime and would leave no conspicuous traces in history – a man whose name had already lapsed into oblivion? I dissented from these opinions. Stanley’s name, I rejoined, was haunted by that melody of fame which arouses responses in the unconscious; it was characterised by the rhythms which derive from a mention by millions upon millions of tongues; and what they styled “oblivion” was no more than a passing forgetfulness.’

Stanley, at the time Wassermann was writing, was a marginalised figure. His reputation had been sullied by accusations of cruelty, his adventures in Africa linked – unfairly - to the colonial exploits of Leopold II. Public recognition of his achievements had consistently been undermined by ‘calumny’. Numerous ‘falsehoods’ were attached to his image.

Challenging these falsehoods thus becomes a key aim of Wassermann’s project: ‘to describe a great man as he actually was and actually lived.’

A second aim is to understand the ‘lure’ of his subject, to explain why he chose Stanley, or why Stanley chose him.

‘[Y]outhful impressions have undoubtedly played their part in the matter. Stanley’s triumphs were gained when I was an adolescent; the whole world was talking of him then; he was the hero of the lads of my generation.’

However, the enduring appeal of Stanley relies on something else, something harder to define:

‘My concern is with the balance between doing and being, or rather with the impossibility of achieving this balance in the contemporary world; and in that sense Stanley’s figure has become symbolical for me... What made things so different for Stanley from what they were for the men engaged in conquest and discovery when the Middle Ages were over and the New Times were in the article of birth, was that Stanley’s mind had been formed in a European or (if you will) European-American community; in a community which never allows its sons even for an hour to follow without reserve the promptings of the heart, which keeps them in bondage by invisible ties, dictates their resolves, inoculates them with laws and moral regulations, prescribes for them standards of social behaviour, allows them only just so much time and just so much money as it thinks proper, and will promptly outlaw them and destroy them if they disobey an injunction or overstep a mark.

Stanley, therefore, was not a free spirit... he could not disregard the instructions of the man who had commissioned him, nor shake off the authority of the land where he had been born and the country in which he had been nationalised; he was a salaried employee quite as much as if he had been sitting at a desk editing a newspaper.’

This image of Stanley – as a man employed to discover and explore – strikes Wassermann as particularly modern. It constitutes both the tragedy of Stanley’s fate and his saving grace. Had Stanley been free to do as he wished, he might have achieved a great deal more. He might also have succumbed to the extremes of cruelty his detractors later accused him of. As it was, he was restrained by a ‘lengthening chain’:

‘Five thousand miles from London and ten thousand from New York it clanks along after him at every footstep through the African forest, where, even in the boundless wild, he is but a subordinate. By temperament he was a man to found empires; and indeed he came near to establishing the Congo State with Henry M. Stanley as its undisputed ruler. Certainly this was his dream – and, instead, he had to pen books, to compile popularly written accounts of his travels. This was the new feature about the man, that the explorer and empire-builder was, first, last, and all the time, a reporter and journalist. This made his work scintillating, enigmatical, and, from a certain outlook, magnificent.’

The thought that Stanley could so easily have become a monster exerts a fascination on Wassermann. Likewise, he is intrigued by the paradoxical idea that Stanley was condemned – by the very forces that restrained him - to a life of ‘measureless activity’. Prevented from wholly ‘being’, he was forced instead to ‘do’: the would-be conqueror remained, ultimately, an observer and recorder (the role of actual conqueror fell, among others, to the un-restrained Leopold). The paid explorer was never allowed to discover himself.

Stanley’s achievements – not least his refusal to join in the wholesale brutality and sadism of his European and Arab contemporaries – seem remarkable given his upbringing. Born John Rowlands - to a father he never knew and a mother he saw ‘only two or three times’ - he was left ‘for good or for evil, to the care of unloving relatives’. At six years old he was sent to the St. Asaph Union Workhouse, where, in the hands of the Master, James Francis, a ‘remorseless lunatic’, he quickly learned ‘the unimportance of tears’. This early acquaintance with hardship might have resulted in a lack of feeling or sensitivity. However, the religious piety Stanley showed in later life – ‘one of his most conspicuous traits’ according to Wassermann – reveals a clearly defined sense of right and wrong. He was very much a product of his age: reproducing both its failings and its strengths.

As a young man, now living in America, Stanley was infected by ‘the war-fever sedulously disseminated by Southern propagandists.’ He fought for the southern states, only to realise almost immediately his mistake:

‘ “This enlistment was, as I conceive it, the first of many blunders; and it precipitated me into a veritable furnace, from which my mind would have quickly recoiled, had I but known what the process of hardening was to be... I had to learn that what was unlawful to a civilian was lawful to a soldier. The ‘Thou shalt not’ of the Decalogue was now translated ‘Thou shalt.’ Thou shalt kill, lie, steal, blaspheme, covet, and hate; for, by whatsoever fine name they were disguised, every one practised these arts, from the President down to the private in the rear rank.’

This moral aversion to war led him to desert the army at the earliest opportunity (but not before fighting, briefly, for the other side). His autobiographical writings – Wassermann’s main source of information – suggest a profound horror of large-scale conflict. As Wassermann writes:

‘We have the impression, often enough, that we are reading the utterances of some champion of pacifism, of a disciple of Tolstoy or Romain Rolland, although these thoughts were conceived many decades before the officially organised slaughter which is called war came to be stigmatised by such great teachers as no less criminal than private murder.’

However, Stanley’s squeamishness – certainly at this point in his life – seems to be reserved for the white race. His attitudes to native Americans and to black slaves are not quite so consistent:

‘At that time the Indian problem was a focus of unrest in the States, just as the Negro problem is to-day... Stanley to begin with leaned towards the side of the oppressed Redskins, though he regarded the southern Negroes as of little account... But in the end he swung over to the other side, justifying his change of front by arguments which are not entirely convincing... It seems probable that he was one of the principal initiators of the scheme to establish Indian reservations, a politically sound one, from the Whites’ outlook, seeing that its enforcement did so much to hasten the decay and disappearance of the Redskins!’

The fact that Stanley felt he had to choose sides at all is revealing. His apparent indifference to the fate – first of southern slaves then of native Americans – puts his pacifism in context. He may have been more sympathetic or sensitive than many of his contemporaries, Wassermann suggests, and he was certainly not the tyrant his enemies made him out to be, but he was still, nevertheless, burdened by the prejudices of his time, his race and his social position.

This burden – the true ‘white man’s burden’ as Wassermann sees it – is viewed with ambivalence throughout the book. While deplored for the licence it apparently grants to European colonialists, it is nevertheless responsible for the restraint which ultimately saves Stanley. Wassermann’s argument seems to be that Stanley’s definition of what it means to be ‘civilised’, while questionable by today’s standards, was nevertheless preferable to the more widely-held interpretation. For Stanley – as for Wassermann – civilisation is something problematic. This becomes clear when Stanley returns from his first trip to Africa:

‘In the wilds, he could function as one of the pioneers of civilisation; but when he was in London or New York, its institutions oppressed him like a nightmare.’

Stanley, in effect, becomes and remains an outsider: his experiences in Africa render him unfit for European or American life, yet his Western background – and the fact that he must answer to his employers - prevents him from fully immersing himself in African life. As Wassermann notes:

‘Although he was wholly a man of the nineteenth century, with all the defects and all the merits characteristic of those who belonged to that epoch, he sometimes produces the impression of being a man who does not belong to any particular age, or of being one whose unconscious endeavour it is to transcend the limitations of his era.’

The phrase ‘unconscious endeavour’ seems to be most significant here. For Wassermann, Stanley could have freed himself from the restrictions of civilisation had circumstances been different; had he been a different man, in other words. He was clearly one of civilisation’s discontents. So what was it that held him back? Not just the fact that he was answerable to his employers (he might easily have ‘gone native’); and not just his piety or his pacifism (he could forget both when it suited him): Stanley’s aim, his vision of himself and his role in Africa, his personal ‘civilising mission’, was different. Where others saw an opportunity to gain – both financially and in terms of power - Stanley was more idealistic, almost naively so:

‘His recipe for the moralisation of the African natives was typically simple. Africa and Europe were to enter into trade relations, and, thereupon, as a result of conjoined philanthropic zeal and scientific labour, within a brief space of time the Golden Age would come into being for Africa.’

If Stanley stands condemned by history, Wassermann suggests, it is for his innocence in this matter, for not anticipating the sequel to his voyages of discovery (quite what he could have done to prevent the carnage that followed is another matter). His idealism – a more benign form of the colonialism practised by his peers - saves him from the worst excesses yet simultaneously exposes his helplessness.

His faith in ‘the superiority of the white race' and in 'the benefits which their mental and material goods would confer upon the blacks,’ a faith soon to be betrayed, ultimately betrays Stanley himself:

‘Soon these natives will be wearing the red caps of soldiers and the discarded liveries of Brussels footmen; their fields will have been occupied by factories and trading companies; they will have sold their birth-right for whisky and gin; and in the eyes of megalomaniac officials from Europe, equipped with unrestricted powers, the privileges they have been granted will be mere scraps of paper. Stanley does not know this, and had a prophet foretold it, he would not have believed it. The vision which has obsessed him makes it impossible for him to draw logical inferences from actual experience. But as far as he himself is concerned, he remains free from megalomania. He remains free from the presumption that is so common in the apostles of European civilisation, whose inflated sense of power is often in an inverse ratio to their real worth in the human scale, and who incline to seek compensation for their natural inferiority in the wilderness where no writ runs.’

The accusations of cruelty and self-aggrandisement that plagued Stanley until his death – and afterwards - seem easier to understand in this context. They reveal the bad consciences of his accusers. Because he refrained from the sort of sadism and greed that was expected of him he shamed – or at least embarrassed – many of his compatriots. He was perhaps a little too civilised for these apostles of civilisation: such is Wassermann’s contention. Wassermann also suggests that there is a sexual element. Stanley, he asserts, almost certainly slept with African women. His silence on the subject of sex between whites and blacks – even when discussing the worst exploits of his fellow Europeans - is a noteworthy omission. More than mere delicacy or discretion, this hints at a deeper ambivalence. The subject is taboo, not only for the guilt associated with it, but for the pleasure. If Stanley chooses not to write about it, Wassermann hints, it is because he does not (or cannot, without hypocrisy) disapprove. This ambivalence is then detected by his enemies (the Victorian reading public, as Foucault points out, would have been keenly alert to such signifiers). Perhaps, too, there are rumours. Perhaps anecdotal stories have followed Stanley back from Africa. In any case, Stanley’s liking for black women (real or exaggerated) thus becomes additional ammunition to be used against him:

‘... it would be superfluous, almost undignified, to allude to the matter, were it not that in England, above all during the later years of his life, evil rumours were attached to his name, especially in the way of accusations that he had treated the natives cruelly. But, except for occasional corporal punishment of the men he had hired (corporal punishment which he inflicted reluctantly, only when his patience had been strained to the uttermost, only when discipline could be maintained in no other way), there is absolutely no warrant for these accusations. There is not a shadow of ground for the belief that Stanley ever became afflicted by what has been termed “tropical frenzy”; that he ever manifested the sadism to which so many Europeans in out-of-the-way parts of Africa fall a prey, so that they degenerate into torturers and executioners as soon as they possess powers of life and death over their black-skinned fellows... The man’s whole story, the epitome of it here presented, suffice to prove the contrary; and no one has seriously and honestly endeavoured to put forward proof that his behaviour towards the blacks was anything but exemplary, a blending of comradeship and authority, of sympathy and educational endeavour. I think, therefore, that the evil repute to which I have referred can only be the outcome of whispers concerning this particular form of sexual “misconduct,” which to Stanley’s prejudiced fellow-countrymen seemed repulsive and blameworthy.’

As an argument it is not entirely convincing. To accuse Stanley of cruelty towards black men because he had slept with black women seems confused. Surely, to have accused him of being too fond of black people in general would have suited his accusers just as well.

The weakness of Wassermann’s book is that his source material – secondary literature being so slight at the time – is almost exclusively Stanley's own writing. Wassermann must therefore read between the lines of what Stanley says about himself in order to gain critical distance from his subject. While this allows (invites) an intimate reading, and while Wassermann is certainly vigilant enough not to be taken in by everything Stanley says, it nevertheless leaves him, at times, having to resort to conjecture.

A lot more has since been written about Stanley, and a more comprehensive picture of him has been formed, but Wassermann deserves credit for his attempt to redeem Stanley’s public image. As he suggests – more convincingly - elsewhere, Stanley’s unpopularity perhaps stemmed from nothing more than personal dislike:

‘... there was no intimacy about him, by repute he was hard and unfeeling, he was taciturn and averse from company... he was never hail-fellow-well-met, but always strict and formal, with an inclination to melancholy and bitterness.’

Wassermann’s achievement is to turn this dislike into at least a grudging respect. Stanley might have been cold and taciturn, his attitudes might seem unpleasant, even deplorable, but he was far from being the tyrant he is often portrayed as. As for the impact of his exploration of Africa, Wassermann cautions us against over-hasty judgement:

‘Whatever the primary motive may have been, and no matter whether (measured upon a scale of moral absolutes) it be regarded as a high one or a low one, its effective valuation cannot be made until after the event. Thanks only to such enterprises does it come to pass that there are new things in the world, things which no one had previously seen or imagined, a new law, a new path for mankind, a new idea of the commonwealth, a new image of the godhead.’

‘His relations with the blacks led to a decisive change in the general view of the African races held by Europeans – but, all the same, he himself was never freed from the European delusion of the need for the “occupation” of Africa. Hence, in part, the tragedy of the Congo Free State.’

‘His honest endeavour was to protect them, for the very reason that he was endowed with a “higher intelligence.” What disastrous results that higher intelligence was destined to bring in its train remained hidden in the future. Yet all too soon his beloved “Free State” was to become the arena for conscienceless exploitation and oppression.’

This exploitation and oppression was only indirectly Stanley’s ‘fault’: something we should bear in mind, Wassermann urges, when we judge him.

From Jakob Wassermann, H.M. Stanley, Explorer, (Cassell and Company, Ltd., 1932, trans., Eden and Cedar Paul)

271 pages


‘To speak of him merely as a traveller or an explorer is deceptive; we do him more justice when we regard him as the founder of a colony; in truth he was a belated condottiere or conquistador. During the sixteenth century he would have made history in quite another fashion than was possible to one born into a lukewarm and jejune era. His kinship with the great navigators and land-stormers who flourished between 1500 and 1700 is conspicuous. The modern scientist devoted to the service of what is called civilisation (he was fond of the word) was in him continually overridden by the man of action and the conqueror.’

‘Within a particular epoch, individuals have on the average a destiny characteristic of that epoch.’

‘ He loved the blacks. Few Europeans have been more intimately acquainted than he became with their customs, their rites, their character, and their institutions.’

‘The reader must continually bear in mind that it was more than sixty years ago, when no European Power had as yet dreamed of colonising these parts, and when, in the maps, most of Central Africa was still represented by blank spaces.’

‘Should we approve the conquerors, those who belonged to a race having an enormous preponderance of power at its command, those whose ultimate victory was inevitable despite the numerical excess of the blacks locally, and their desperate resistance? Or are we, on the other hand, to consider that a dark-skinned people, heroically defending its freedom and independence, was unjustly chastised for the endeavour to avoid passing under foreign dominion?’

‘Every foot of his journey has to be conquered, not only in the sense of exploration, but also in the sense of guarding against the menace of the natives, inasmuch as these latter (with good reason) are extremely averse to what Europeans term the “opening-up” of their country.’

‘Their instincts may have been savage and cruel, but the instincts were sound enough, seeing what they had to expect from the white invasion. The white invaders, in their turn, were but simpletons if they expected to be received with open arms by these unsophisticated folk among whom they established themselves by force and by guile, bringing with them all the blessings of civilisation – such as distilled spirits, syphilis, forced labour, speedy degeneration, a fall in the value of all produce, and the dispossession of the natives from their lands. We gather, however, that Stanley had no such forebodings. In these matters he was as innocent as a child. He had no doubt as to the superiority of the white race, or as to the benefits which their mental and material goods would confer upon the blacks. When, half a century later, a man of wide knowledge, Andre Gide, visited the Congo region, he was to be reduced to shame and despair by the study of what had happened to the natives under the rule of civilised nations.’

‘From the time of his arrival in Boma, he never lost the conviction that he had discovered a continent, or at least the largest and most important part of a continent; had discovered it and won it for Europe. But discovery and a nominal taking possession of this part of the world in the name of the white race were only the first steps. The next, more responsible if not more difficult, was the introduction of civilisation. He had laid open a tract comparable in extent and resources to the basin of the Amazon or the Mississippi. What his vision saw, what his supreme effort was given to, was the transformation of its millions of people from barbarism: the transformation of those who were oppressed by all the ills of ignorance, superstition and cruelty, into happy and virtuous men and women... ’

‘Elsewhere Livingstone declared, and more than once, that he had only encountered resistance and enmity in places where other white men had been before him, or where reports of what white men were like had found their way. In the uncorrupted wilds, he had always met with the most cordial hospitality.’

‘One of the most tragic pages in the story of his return to the Congo describes his coming upon a series of villages just ravaged by a ferocious slave-raid of the Arabs, and of his afterwards encountering a herd of the wretched captives chained and guarded. It is a terrible picture. Over a hundred villages had been devastated; and the 5000 carried away as slaves stood for six times as many slain, or dying by the roadside...

‘”Every second during which I regard them the clank of fetters and chains strikes upon my ears. My eyes catch sight of that continual lifting of the hand to ease the neck in the collar, or as it displays a manacle exposed through a muscle being irritated by its weight or want of fitness. My nerves are offended with the rancid effluvium of the unwashed herds within this human kennel. The smell of other abominations annoys me in that vitiated atmosphere... Many of those poor things have already been months fettered in this manner, and their bones stand out in bold relief beneath the attenuated skin, which hangs down in thin wrinkles and puckers. Who can withstand the feeling of pity so powerfully pleaded for by these large eyes and sunken cheeks? What was the cause of all this vast sacrifice of human life, of all this unspeakable misery? Nothing but the indulgence of an old Arab’s wolfish, bloody, starved, and ravenous instincts. He wished to obtain slaves, to barter profitably away to other Arabs...’

‘But what will be the result if such Dantesque pictures are sent home to the civilised world? A few missionary societies will be stirred to send out their emissaries. This will do nothing to cut at the roots of the system. It will merely salve the conscience of the man of illusions!’

‘ “Every tusk,” writes Stanley, “every scrap of ivory in the possession of an Arab trader has been steeped and dyed in blood. Every pound weight has cost the life of a man, woman, or child; for every five pounds a hut has been burned; for every two tusks a whole village has been destroyed; every twenty tusks have been obtained at the price of a district with all its people, villages and plantations... Because ivory is required for ornaments or billiard balls, the rich heart of Africa is laid waste.”... To-day, forty-five years later, things have come to such a pass that, great game-preserves notwithstanding, it seems not unlikely that the last African elephants will soon be shot. Meanwhile, the slave-trade continues to flourish; or if, in semblance, it has been abolished, its place has been taken by what is euphemistically termed “forced labour,” and by refined but still brutal methods of exploitation. The modern system may be less obviously and palpably cruel, but it goes on sucking the blood of the natives like a gigantic vampire.’